Harvard Prof. Says Placebo Effect More Powerful And Useful Than We Imagine

Dec 21, 2012

The act of taking pills is one part of the complex mental reward system known as the placebo effect.
Credit Flickr Photo/pig pog s

Before 1970, doctors used to lie to their patients all the time. They knew that some hypochondriacs became noticeably better when doctors gave them a sugar pill.

This was called "the placebo effect." After 1970, we thought of placebos differently. Researchers decided that for a drug to be deemed effective, it had to outperform a placebo. But we never stepped back and took a good hard look at the placebo and why it worked.

Harvard researcher Ted Kaptchuck has done that. He says the placebo effect can be administered like a drug, in different doses and achieve different results. He says the ritual of medicine — from the act of taking a pill, to whether the doctor stares thoughtfully into the distance while examining you — is far more than a placebo. This ritual can be used to increase the effectiveness of modern drugs.

Medicine is not all in the mind; we can't heal broken bones by thinking happy thoughts. But medicine may be more mental than we realize. Ted Kaptchuck speaks with David Hyde.